On Alice Shapiro’s “The Twittering Machine”

The Twittering Machine (painting by Klee here)
Alice Shapiro

“A line is a dot that went for a walk” – Paul Klee

Clock. Time’s machine
twittering off each glassy moment
fragile soundings faraway
at the nape of memory
reminding, rewinding.
O clock, o’clock
machine of mornings
to wash, to work, to win
against your ticking, always

Toaster. Bread burner
hot molecular intrusion making food smack
of sweet and crunchy bliss,
morning’s stomach-hug
tactile power in the lift of a stiff slice
buttered, jammed, swallowed
well before the dreaded time to clock

Auto. Legs in, torso in, head
swivels east to west checking traffic
from a rear-view looking glass.
Leather smells spiked with stale tobacco smoke
suffocate in a cloistered cocoon space
blasted by a vulgar booming song
muffling twittering signals
from a wrist-clock, reminding
of commitment.
And the auto, instead of turning in,
punching in to work
drives straight into the sunset.


Watch me join “The Twittering Machine,” but first look at the painting and read MoMA’s short commentary in the link above. We could spend time talking about the “natural”/”industrial” fusion; the ambiguity of the lines upon which the birds are perched, or are shackled to, or are defined by. The hand crank, the pit that seems to be the same color as the top of the painting, the “monstrosity” of the “birds” are more what I’m interested in: why the deformity, why the suggestion of a greater horror inside a music box? The appearance of the whole makes one wonder if what keeps us in the cave are sounds more than images, but again, watch me join the machine: images do not necessarily liberate.

Onto the poem. The fragments that mark spoken word are not quite twitterings, but what if we recognized them as everyday and incessant? Clock, Toaster, Auto: the location switches but our subject’s movement is at best defined by restraint. “Toaster” sticks out: it is a machine made for the human. “Clock” and “Auto[matic]” are machines we are within.

“Glassy” and “glass” may hint at the abstractions used to create the machine: first, the form of the thing, not the thing itself. Take those moments, they are emptying; react to the reflections of other autos. Those “fragile soundings faraway at the nape of memory” are otherworldly, even though they are the empty tickings of the clock. The clock is time’s machine, not ours necessarily; it becomes the machine of morning once the dreamworld is abandoned for the dream (“to wash, to work, to win”). We fight the clock as we are beholden to it; it is “always on.”

“In” ends the second stanza, and it isn’t hard to see the mechanistic process that we are come into full swing (“buttered, jammed, swallowed”). What is interesting is the “smack of sweet and crunchy bliss:” a toaster isn’t a deformed or deforming machine necessarily.

But our “human” spoken about sticks himself into the car and limits his own motion and seeing for pure speed. The car is filled with narcotics of one sort or another: smoke replaces air, the noise replaces even the twittering. We are in the pit. Our subject may or may not be going to work: if he can only imagine material happiness, then the cliche of driving off into the sunset with his automobile will suffice. He may be going to work, though: we could say “work” is the “sunset” – the finality – since “work” has been reduced to being machinery. Either way, it doesn’t matter: this whole poem has been at the nape of memory; twitterings are no replacement for the awareness, joining and articulation of thought. There is a machine at work there too, but one that strives for consciousness rather than bliss or a substitute for bliss. At best, twitterings are a memento mori (cf. Dickinson, “The Earth has many keys…”), and that is all that has really been said so far.

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